Brooklyn-born actress Susan Hayward’s battle with cancer ended on March 14, 1975. Her death was a shock to Hollywood, Brooklyn and movie fans all over the world.
She was Greta Garbo’s favorite star. Brooklynite Alan King interrupted his show at a Las Vegas nightclub to say a few words about Hayward and to offer a minute of silence in her memory.
Carmine Capp, another Brooklynite, placed an ad in Variety magazine every year on the anniversary of her death. It read: “Academy Award Winning Actress Susan Hayward — June 30, 1918-March 14, 1975. A Star is a Star, is a Star. P.S. You were great in Smash-Up, With a Song in My Heart, I’ll Cry Tomorrow and I Want to Live.”
The saga of Edythe Marrener, who became the movie star Susan Hayward, could easily be taken for the story line of one of her own movies. Rags to riches the hard way; no Cinderella story. “Brooklyn is a great place to have been born in, and is as well a great place to leave from,” she said after she was well established in Hollywood.
The Marreners, Walter and Ellen, could be described as average working people. They already had two children, Florence and frail little Walter, but even with their meager income they decided to have another child. Red-headed Edythe was born on June 30, 1918, in a tenement at Church Avenue and East 35th Street in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Little Edythe was the cutest of the Marrener kids, with rosy, freckled skin, big hazel eyes, a small upturned nose and a beautiful mane of red hair, which was to become her most famous trademark, this and the big hazel eyes — a gift inherited from her father.
Walter Marrener, of Irish and French descent, was a Coney Island barker who moved up to be a subway guard. Ellen, said to have been a very temperamental woman, was of Swedish descent. Edythe’s grandmother on her father’s side was an actress, and a famous one, in County Cork: Kate Harrigan.
Edythe’s parents were poor. The little girl knew that five pennies were a fortune and she seldom had even one to spend. Her favorite playground was Prospect Park, where it didn’t cost anything to play and dream. She loved to go horseback riding and spent hours riding the ponies whenever she could afford it. When she could go to the movies, she would sit in the darkened theater, wide-eyed, awed at the marvels displayed on the screen. What kind of wonderful and mysterious world was this, so different from the grim realities of her Flatbush surroundings?
One day while playing in the street, she was run over by a car. At the hospital, doctors found she had a hip fracture and said she would probably never be able to walk again. Her heartbroken mother had been saving money for dancing lessons for Edythe, who dreamed of a dancing career.
A determined Edythe fooled the doctors and was walking six months after the accident but was confined to her bed at home much of the time for about a year, unable to attend classes at P.S. 181. When she eventually recovered, she was able to resume her school life.
Daily Eagle Paper Girl
Edythe’s family moved to 2568 Bedford Ave. and she got herself a paper route delivering the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the first girl hired by the Eagle as a carrier. She had to fight to keep up with the boy carriers; they didn’t like a girl taking jobs away from them. Sometimes she borrowed a bike to deliver the paper, but mostly she walked. When she wore out her shoes, she stuffed old newspapers inside to cover the holes.
When she entered Girls Commercial High School she got parts in the school plays. Her English teacher Eleanor O’Grady recognized her talent and insisted that she join the dramatic club.
She was working as a designer of handkerchiefs when she managed to take courses at the Feagan Drama School in Manhattan and began modeling for the Walter Thornton Agency. In mid-1937 the agency selected her to pose for an article about New York models to appear in the Saturday Evening Post. They described her glamour in detail and there were eight color photos. A copy of the magazine fell into the hands of George Cukor during producer David Selznick’s search for a Scarlett O’Hara for Gone With the Wind. Selznick saw possibilities, and a two-way ticket to California was mailed to Edythe to make the trip for a screen test.
Not getting the part was a blow and she started planning for the future. Selznick told her to “Go back to Brooklyn and learn to act.” Her screen test, shown to Warner Brothers by an agent she had hired, resulted in a contract at that studio. As an extra, or bit player, she appeared in some Warners films. Warners changed her name to Susan Hayward. Her first screen credit was for a not-so-promising “debut” in Girls on Probation (1938). Hayward started dating Ronald Reagan, who was also in the film, and she began being seen around Hollywood.
‘Get Rid of that Brooklyn Accent’
After a number of bit parts at Warners, they dropped Susan’s option. Her agent took her around to other studios and some of the advice she was given was: “Get rid of that Brooklyn accent, you sound like Ebbets Field.” She was also advised to get rid of “that bump at the end of your nose.” She went to see Ronald Colman’s The Prisoner of Zenda about a hundred times till her accent was smoothed out. She lived on shredded wheat and beans for weeks in order to pay a drama coach.
Finally a break came. She got a part in Beau Geste (’39) with Gary Cooper and Ray Milland. She came to New York for the first showing of the movie and her name made the headlines for the first time. She was off on her movie career.
Her many films include Reap the Wild Wind (’42), Forest Rangers (’42), Canyon Passage (’46), Smash Up: The Story of a Woman (’47), My Foolish Heart (’49), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (’52) and Back Street (’61). She won an Oscar as Best Actress for her portrayal of a convicted murderer in I Want to Live (1959). Hayward played the role of the singer Jane Froman in With a Song in My Heart (1952). Look magazine said: “All in all, Susan Hayward, with the warmth and range of the artist she has become, makes the Froman story a convincing experience.” Hayward makes “her [Froman] so alive that from now on the two women may be one in the public’s mind.”
During World War II she walked onto the stage of a U.S.O. show and shouted, “Is anyone here from Brooklyn?” igniting an uproar of approval from the admiring G.I. audience.
Hayward’s only stage appearance was as the lead in a production of Mame.
The outdoor scenes in a 1956 release The Conqueror were filmed around St. George, Utah, near an atomic test site where the mercury climbed to 120 degrees at times. The movie is listed in “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time” but has had a real-life horrible aftermath. An alarming number of the cast and crew were stricken with cancer, including Hayward.